TUI ATUA: PASSING ON "THE RICHNESS OF OUR LANGUAGE" IS A DEEP RESPONSIBILITY
“Our Samoan language and culture is core to us as Samoans, they feed our sense of being Samoan and our claims of a Samoan-ness. “They are what make us unique as a people; what differentiates us from others. They embody and carry the legacies of our forebears and connect us to them,” said Samoa’s Head of State, His Highness, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi who was keynote speaker at the Governor’s three day Education Summit which kicked off yesterday.
The Summit holds the theme, “Students First- Building a Common Purpose” and was held at the Lee Auditorium. Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga called this education summit to bring all of the education stakeholders together to address alarming student performance statistics citing 70% of our students performing below the national average and 80% to 90% of our high school graduates having to take remedial courses at the American Samoa Community College before they can take college level courses.
Invocation for the Summit was given by Father Kelemete Pua’auli, Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Samoa Pago Pago.
During his special remarks, Tui Atua stated that he’s not an academic linguist, nor a school teacher, nor a pastor, rather his topic—the Samoan language and culture —comes from the perspective of someone who lives, speaks, writes and loves all things Samoan.
“Our Samoan language and culture ought to speak to us in both common sense and profound ways; it ought to help us record our histories, as well as our politics; our dreams and visions, as well as our failures and paradoxes. It ought to inspire and motivate us, and at the same time enable us to communicate and function. Culture and language are tools for defining identities and belonging – belonging to a community and to a nation.”
He noted that he’s cautious about the Samoan language and culture because the Samoan he grew up with, still speaks and holds dear, is a Samoan that seems to have lost its punch, its relevance.
“However this is not only because we do not build our houses using the matavana drill borers anymore (and so we don’t know what they look like)—but we also don’t stay around long enough when house building to watch how a house gets put together from beginning to end.
“We have no appreciation of how these house building tools work, because we don’t know what they are. The power or punch of this saying is lost when we have no real life experience of the tools or images at the centre of the metaphor.”
He explained that in Samoa a debate has been brewing on the issue of how best to teach and learn Samoan.
His highness said that, In preparing for this address he has been reflecting on this issue and its ramifications, finding it hugely complex, full of layers, twists and turns, as well as political agendas, personal emotions and practical constraints given that language and culture is so central to the human condition.
They are, despite their complexities, central to our teaching and learning— to our becoming.
For Samoans, there is an imperative on those directly responsible for maintaining both the uniqueness and relevance of our language and culture to be well versed in the issues. They have to understand the context of learning and teaching Samoan, not only for children but also for adults, including the intellectually or physically challenged. They need to recognize that the tools needed to teach brand new learners are markedly different to those with more sophisticated needs.
They have to understand how and why we moved from one form of speaking, writing and living Samoan to another, and why we might move back and forth in 'hybrid ways'. They must understand what influenced us back then, what influences us now, and what is likely to influence us in the future.
He said that for both our countries, these are very real issues and they generate very real tensions. Tension and change tells us that our society is growing, our realities are changing. The question is when might it become bad? And, how would we know in order to avoid it?
Sociologist Cluny Macpherson, who has published extensively on Samoan ethnicity, wrote a probing book chapter on Samoan language change (forthcoming) for an upcoming festschrift in honor of the widely respected Polynesian linguist Andrew Pawley, where Cluny argues that Samoan has been heavily influenced by the forces of globalization— i.e. migration, tourism and commerce— and as such has expanded accordingly. This includes the incorporation of new words or words gained from contact languages, both colloquial and formal words, particularly from English.
What is more important is being able to make sense of the meaning of words and how these meanings change. Unpacking terms in this way gives us insight not only into the poetic and scholastic richness of the language of our forebears, but also into just how its Samoan-ness has changed over the years.
"In an attempt to revive some of the teachings of my forebears I have taken to unpacking the etymology and syntax of certain terms and sayings. Our faasamoa, in the ideal, is founded on alofa and faaaloalo (compassion and respect). Oratory is as much an art as it is a sport. Even when deliberately seeking to offend we attempt to do so through mannered language, often sparring with an air of civility and elegance."
“What we retain in our language ultimately reflects who we are as a people and as individuals; it reflects our beliefs and our values. “ In our fight for what matters in language and culture we as leaders are tasked with the responsibility, the matāfaioi, to liuliu faalaau mamafa le tofa ma le faautaga loloto— to discern carefully and deeply for the short and long term the issues pertaining to how best to retain and pass on the richness of our language and culture to our young.”
He further stated that in all of the sayings and words he has explored while finding evidence of a love in our language and culture for the visual rather than the abstract, for drama, ritual and theatre, we also find that a lot of how we speak, much of which still forms the basis of our writings, is still based on our observations and experiences of both nature and ourselves, of both the exciting and the mundane.
“Retaining a love for nuance in our translations or communications requires translators and communicators who love and are well versed in our vocabularies and idioms. The richest bilingual or multilingual education programs are those that can demonstrate this.
While we cannot fully control the forces of capitalism and globalization, we still have some control, some very considerable control, over what we as individuals, communities and nations do. We still have control over exactly how we as individuals and as members of communities write Samoan, whether we use diacritics or not; how we speak Samoan, whether we use the ‘t’ or the ‘k’ or not or whether we let some Samoan words go in favor of English derivatives or not.
We also have a lot of control over whether we bestow chiefly titles on female members of our families or not, on whether we practice the ifoga or the sua to show our remorsefulness and respect or not, and whether we engage in faalavelave or not. Each of these things when considered together make up for some considerable continuing control over the development of our Samoan language and culture.
The deciding factor in each of these instances is whether we have the character and humility to commit the resources and energy required to take and keep control.
He stated that the working life of Samoans today is dictated not by the seasons of nature but by the incessant ticking of the commercial corporate clock. Today experts talk about the importance of life-work balance, meaning that we have to stop rushing from one job to the next; that we need to find balance in our lives; that we need to literally take ourselves away from our concrete jungles, away from the office computer, to walk outside in the sun or the rain, to walk on the grass and feel its texture beneath our bare feet, to smell the roses, the mosooi or the tiare, to actually go and catch a fish or watch the birds in real life not on television, to actually talk with our children or our spouses in person rather than by telephone, text, email or skype.
In traditional Samoa 'anapogi' (fasting) was our way of rebalancing ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. In my quest to keep the substance of our old language and culture alive, to make it comprehensible to our young, I hear and feel more and more acutely the cry of the manutagi in that famous song,” said His highness.
His highness stated that the words of the song and its solemn tune are meant to convey the heavy burden and the anxiety of both pining and mourning for a love who has left because she is ill and about to die— and when he reflects on the state of our Samoan language and culture he feels the cry of the manutagi.
“But like most things it is often not until you have lost it that you realize just how much it meant to you. With modern technology, open minds and clean hearts, we may not need to lose as much as we think.”